Fine print - October 2011

Taken to the extreme
By G.D. Gearino

It appears I have become an extremist. I know this because other people have declared it to be so. They are thoughtful and reasonable citizens, with a grip on reality much firmer than my own — or so they indicate — which means, ipso facto, I’m an extremist simply by virtue of the fact that I have examined the same set of circumstances as they have but arrived at a different conclusion. I could just attribute this to the state of political debate these days, but here’s the oddest thing: The matters in dispute weren’t overtly political.

For instance, you may recall that in the summer I wrote about Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp.’s unerring ability to kick-start conversations about the environment. On the way to making the point that Duke’s efforts to be more environmentally responsible inadvertently laid bare the “undeniable reality” that our need for electricity simply can’t be reconciled with our desire to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, I cited a couple of facts: First, that coal supplies 46% of the nation’s electricity, while alternative sources such as wind and solar provide only 4%; and second, that coal from a single mine in Kentucky generates almost as much power as all wind and solar operations in the country combined. I think reducing carbon emissions can result in nothing but good. Yet I also like having the lights go on when I flip a switch, and I’m well aware of the apocalyptic economic consequences of not having a steady, reliable power supply, which for the moment can’t even begin to be provided by alternative sources. So I’m amazed when people blithely pretend that the reluctance to unquestioningly embrace alternative power is a political act rather than an obvious acknowledgment of reality.

But one reader read that column, focused on the facts above and assailed this magazine for publishing an ”argument against renewable energy ... [that] was mind boggling in its absurdity.” Huh? I wasn’t making an argument one way or the other, only pointing out that Duke Energy’s stab at environmentalism had the effect of causing people to face the reality of our power needs in the present — not in the future when wind turbines dot the landscape, solar panels are bolted onto every structure and the wind always blows and the sun always shines. I thought we had permission from Al Gore to bring up inconvenient truths. Silly me.

But I didn’t become a bona fide extremist until a couple of months later, when I used the occasion of President Barack Obama’s visit to the Triangle to fulminate about society’s acquiescence as government not only grows larger and more intrusive but steadily more inefficient as well. “The idea that government should perform a few important tasks well and efficiently, and otherwise leave us alone, is long gone,” I lamented. Would anyone actually make the obverse of that argument: that we should tolerate a government that does lots of things badly and inefficiently? As it turns out, yes — they would.

One online commenter labeled that column ”another far right opinion piece,” suggested it was just a dog whistle for tea partiers and libertarian true believers and dismissed it as “mainly ... deriding our president” (who was actually mentioned only in passing). That was the moment when the sheer craziness of our times sunk in. Urging people to confront the reality of our energy needs, and wanting government to be efficient and nonintrusive, makes me a political outlier. Extremism, thy name is G.D.

Another reader, who thankfully mustered both a civil tone and genuine curiosity, asked me to help him understand the limited-government movement afoot these days. I’ll do so now, and begin by noting that the desire for limited government is neither recent nor a tea-party creation. In fact, it was the philosophical starting point when the Founding Fathers debated and crafted the Constitution. They’d had their fill of big government (aka England), and it shows in the finished product. The first 10 amendments, needed to get it adopted, are an exhaustive list of the ways government is required to leave you the hell alone. The size and power of government these days isn’t the norm. It’s an aberration. Like dissent, limiting the scope of government is an exercise in patriotism.

Besides, let’s not kid ourselves: Everyone is in favor of limited government. Conservatives want government out of the boardroom, while progressives want government out of the bedroom — and womb, for that matter. Anyone who wrings their hands with despair at the mention of limited government does so only because the wrong things are being snatched back from the government’s grasp.

So mine is not “far right wing opinion.” Wanting government to tend only to specified, well-defined tasks is squarely in the middle of mainstream thought and American tradition. I think the government should undertake a rigorous regulation of the securities industry, but why should it advise me about my eating habits? The mortgage-securities meltdown happened right under regulators’ noses and with the connivance of politicians. The result is that I now have a much diminished retirement account — but, hey, at least I’ve got a nifty food pyramid to help me with my eating choices. And I’m an extremist because I want government to forget about the second and focus on the first?